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How Do We Pay the Value of 'Cheap Labor'?

September 10, 2017

I belong to the country that is the second leading exporter for ready-made garments to high fashion brands from the western world. That indeed quantifies the success of  Bangladesh (reaffirmed by the recent growth of the GDP of Bangladesh to 6.5%) on the scale of development progresses made, however, in the course of enjoying the luxury of wearing the trendiest clothing in the cheapest possible price, we forget to ask ourselves-how are these clothes so ridiculously cheap? These clothes are cheap because 3.2 million people in 5,000 factories in Bangladesh are working 16 hours a day, earning barely $2-$4 to make the trendiest clothes available in stores within 4 days after the order has been placed by the fast fashion brands! Most importantly, the factories they work in is literally life threatening for them.

The greatest reference to that would be the collapse of Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rana plaza was one of the major producers of five major fast fashion clothing brands of USA and Europe. On April 23rd, 2013, 3,639 workers who were working in Rana Plaza, discovered a major crack in the factory building. Next day, the workers pledged to stop working in the complex given the threatening working conditions. However, what the owner of the factory had to offer was even worse than that. The owner threatened the labor force of taking their jobs away that had paid them 22 cents per hour and $10.56 a week for a working shift of 90-100 hours a week; which essentially allowed these socially and economically excluded people to feed their dependent family members at length twice a day. Within an hour after the forced workers started working in the factory, the entire factory collapsed whereby 11,38 workers died with thousands of others being critically injured, 200 of them still remain missing! Even after three and a half years, I still believe, the workers did not die only because of the collapse of the factory and its cracked walls, they died also because of the collapse of humanity and social dignity for the under privileged people of the society, around the world. They died because, when consumers like us throw away the cheap price tags from the trendy branded clothes labeled “Made in Bangladesh”, they never ask themselves-who made the clothes so cheap for them!

 

 

200 people still remain missing even after 3.5 years of the Rana Plaza collapse

While some of the major brands sub-contracting from Rana Plaza in quest for “cheap labor”, denied of their involvement with Rana Plaza, some of them actually pledged to come forward and ensure a better working condition for the millions of other workers working in factories with poor working conditions. But what still remains the same is the low wage and social and economic exclusion of these labor force. What still remains a concern is that, this labor force remains trapped within their informal economy lacking the basic human rights and dignity, as a victim to modern day slavery, despite being key role players in the private sector!

According to the World Economic Forum’s “The Inclusive Growth and Development Report 2017”, my country, Bangladesh has lately ranked 36 out of 79 in developing countries ODI and primary reasons have been narrowed down to two- (i) rampant corruption and (ii) massive employment in the informal economy. These large number of labor trapped in the informal economy are, not surprisingly enough, the major contributors to the 6.5% rate of increased GDP in Bangladesh. When we swipe on the screens of our iPhones looking for the news of Google’s launch of “AI venture capitalists”, to imagine someone living under the same sky, inside the informal boundary, without the access to the basic needs like food, shelter and education-simply seems uncannily true! The analogy reflects upon the massive disparity and unequal stature of our society. Living under $4 a day essentially indicates that, 1.6 Billion of these people around the world are not only living in the bottom of the pyramid (BOP), but also live in hunger, without access to education, lack good health, have no access to clean water and sanitation and clean energy and perhaps the most important, live without a decent job and economic growth. To be more succinct, half of our sustainable development goals are often times negatively influenced for being positively correlated with one major SDG- lack of social and economic inclusion in the society.

The world’s best of the policy makers claim that the solution to this issue can be simply leveraging the power of the private sector that creates 90% of the jobs in the world and the Asia pacific at large, yet three-fourth of these jobs are indecent (e.g. in factories like Rana Plaza or under sub-contractors) and exclusive from the government’s umbrella! The creation of jobs mayhap successfully takes care of the development concerns of the world. But what about sustainability of that development? As smart global citizens of the 21st century, if we think from the development perspective, creation of jobs is simply not enough! The society needs creation of decent and inclusive jobs. It is undeniable that the private sector has an enormous contribution to the revenue growth around the world, however, the contributors and key actors behind the curtains-the marginalized labor force need to be acknowledged as a crucial part of the development value chain to ensure an inclusive growth in the world. Therefore, partnering up with the private sector with an intention of meeting the SDG 8 can essentially make SDG 1-7 much more easily and strategically attainable!

We should also consider that, the architecture of the private sector in the world should be built on the foundation of promoting ethical consumption in the upper tiers of the society. As consumers, our ignorance and negligence towards the background stories behind the products and its value, kill thousands of labor in factories like Rana Plaza and essentially make businesses like fashion the second most polluting business in the world.

 

Ethical fashion is a growing revolution around different parts of the world

In the decadence of living trendy lives, we ignore that our lifestyle is labeling thousands of hard working and skilled people as “cheap labor” simply because we as consumers and brands as buyers pay these invaluable labor force a “cheap value” for their skills and hard work.

In a nutshell, if lack of social and economic inclusion is the deepest black flag towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, private sector businesses, driven towards the motivation of sustaining the development around the world-is undoubtedly the ‘white’ flag resembling “peace”. It’s time we become not only responsive but also self-enforcing and smart at aiming towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It’s time we not only work for development and peace building around the world but also come together to sustain that, leveraging the power of global partnership. It’s high time we take social and economic inclusion as a real agenda rather than simply a topic for discussion. It’s time we start rethinking about the real value of “cheap labor” and change our consumption pattern into an ethical and responsive one. It’s time we partner up and invest in ‘peace’ to “grey” out the ‘deepest black’ to the best of our abilities, for a more peaceful world and a better tomorrow.

 

 

(Originally published in EDD-2017 Young Leaders' blog)

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